What is Gap Shooting?

When I first started out in archery, at 11 years old, I didn’t have anyone teach me how to shoot so I just did what I figured was correct; I shot instinctively.  My method was largely trial and error: my first shot was used to figure out where the arrow went, my next shot got more accurate, and so on.  When I found where to aim, I just practiced and practiced at that range to burn it into my mind. 

That worked well enough starting out but what if there was a better way to be even more accurate?  I did some research to try and get more accurate.

Enter Gap Shooting.  What is Gap Shooting you say?

Gap shooting is a method of aiming used by Traditional archers where the point of the arrow is used as the ‘sight picture’.  The point of the arrow is placed either below (called ‘gap’) or above the target (called ‘stacking’), depending on the distance: for shorter distances, the tip is usually placed below and for longer distances, the tip is placed above the target. 

With practice, archers can become extremely accurate.  Let’s get into more details.

How to Gap Shoot

Starting to gap shoot is simple, but it requires some work to set up your system.  You can shoot using any release method you are comfortable with: split-finger, 3-fingers under, etc.  Let’s cover some basic theory.

Arch of the arrow

When you release an arrow, it flies in an arch (hence, “Arch-ery”).  For the first bit of the flight, the arrow is climbing until it reaches its apex and then starts to fall.  The rate of climb before the apex is more gradual over distance and more rapid after the apex.

For example, let’s say the apex of the path of the arrow is at 18 yards and 20 inches above the line-of-sight:  at 10 yards the arrow might be 10 inches above line-of-sight (10 inches below apex) but at 26 yards, the arrow might be 5 inches below line of sight (25 inches below apex).

The reason for this rapid drop-off is because gravity has more of an effect on the arrow past the apex of flight making it drop quicker.  Understanding how the arch of the arrow works is key to understanding gap shooting.

Finding Your Gaps

Now that we understand something about arrow flight, let’s go through how to figure out our gaps.  Follow these steps:

  1. Start at 5 yards and put the tip of the arrow ON the center of the target and execute the shot.  The arrow will probably impact high.  Measure the distance from the center of the target to where the arrow impacted.  That measurement is your GAP at 5 yards.  So, if my arrow impacts 6 inches high at 5 yards, my gap at 5 yards is 6 inches.  That means that in order to hit the bullseye at 5 yards, I need to aim the tip of my arrow 6 inches BELOW the center of the target.
  2. Step back to 10 yards, put the tip of the arrow on the target, and execute the shot.  Again, the arrow will probably impact high.  Let’s say it impacts 12 inches high: my gap at 10 yards is 12 inches; I have to aim 12 inches BELOW the center of the target to hit the bullseye.
  3. Step back to 15 yards and repeat the shot placing the tip of the arrow on the target and see where the arrow impacts.  Let’s say it impacts 18 inches high: my gap at 10 yards is 18 inches; I have to aim 18 inches BELOW the center of the target to hit the bullseye.
  4. Step back to 20 yards and repeat the shot placing the tip of the arrow on the target and see where the arrow impacts.  Now the arrow impacts 18 inches high AGAIN.  That means I’ve found my APEX.  It might actually be somewhere between 15 yards and 20 yards.  My gap at 20 yards is 18 inches; I have to aim 18 inches BELOW the center of the target to hit the bullseye.
  5. Step back to 25 yards.  This time the arrow might impact, say, 15 inches high.  You’re seeing the start of that rapid drop-off.  So my gap at 25 yards is 15 inches.
  6. Keep stepping back until the arrow impacts ON the point you’re are aiming at.  Let’s say that distance is 40 yards.  The distance you shoot from where the arrow impacts where you are aiming is your Point-On distance.
  7. Step back to 45 yards, place the tip of your arrow on the center of the target and execute the shot.  Now, the arrow will impact LOW.  Let’s say the arrow impacts 18 inches below the center of the target: the Gap is 18 inches below point-of-aim and in order to hit the center, I have to aim 18 inches ABOVE the center.  Aiming above your point of impact is called Stacking.  Further distances beyond my point-on will result in significantly larger gaps and I’ll have to stack my arrows even more.

Going through this process, of finding where your arrow impacts at different distances, is essential to learning how to gap shoot.  Once you’ve mapped out all your gaps, you can start practicing at different ranges to become confident with putting the tip of the arrow where it needs to be.

For a very thorough and complete explanation of Gap Shooting, I HIGHLY recommend this video, “The Push” by Matt Zirnsak (starting at 40:00):

Gap Shooting vs Instinctive Shooting

As I’ve said before, I started out shooting instinctively.  This required A LOT of practice shooting probably hundreds of arrows.  As it turns out, I was ACTUALLY just gap shooting but nobody told me.  It was just my instinct to aim the arrow where I needed it in order to impact where I wanted it.  But that’s not really what Instinctive aiming is, according to those who shoot truly instinctively.

With instinctive archery, you just focus on the thing you want to hit, draw the arrow back and hope your body does what it needs to in order to make the arrow impact on the thing you want to hit; you’re using your instincts.  The idea is NOT to aim at all but to let your body instinctively do the work.

You do this by lots and lots and lots and lots of practice.  You start at 5 yards and shoot arrow after arrow after arrow to build the muscle memory required to make the arrow hit at 5 yards.  You then work your way back at various ranges until you’ve mastered all the ranges you want. Once you’ve trained your muscle memory, you can then approach any situation, point, and shoot, and hit where you want all by “Instinct”.

This process of learning the instincts to hit accurately at various ranges takes years to master (or thousands of arrows).  Not everyone has years to master this method.  For me, the long learning curve is a BIG disadvantage.  I don’t want to wait years before I go hunting; I want to go this season!

Gap shooting gives me the ability to learn quickly.  I can go figure out my gaps in an hour or so and then spend the rest of the afternoon practicing holding the arrow at the gaps for each distance.  In the span of a few afternoons, I could be pretty confident hitting accurately at typical hunting distances.

For those interested in target shooting, gap shooting works even better (vs hunting) because you know for certain that your target won’t move.  You can spend your time fine-tuning your gaps and you’d have the added advantage of using the standard targets for aiming points. 

For example, top of the target, outer ring, the bottom of the target: all those “points-of-aim” will be the same during the competition so you can focus on training for those specific situations.